The Virtues of Gorbachevism

When an empire is crumbling, as is the case of the American Empire, it is always confronted by the same phenomenon. Even when a form of realism is at the core of the empire, the periphery of the empire radicalizes itself ideologically. This was the case with the German Democratic Republic during the Gorbachev years: East German Communists refused to support perestroika and continued to praise themselves for their achievements until October 1989, a few weeks before Moscow led them to the opening and dismantling of the Berlin Wall. This is exactly the behavior of current European political leaders.

Yesterday, the weekly Canard Enchaîné, one of the few French newspapers to remain independent, offered an interesting insight into European leaders’ refusal to support Barack Obama’s new approach to Israel. It is too early to say if we have witnessed in the Obama-Netanyahu meeting another sign – after the opening toward Iran – of a fundamental change in Washington’s attitude toward the Middle East. But if that was the case, one would have expected France, Germany, and other European countries to immediately announce their commitment to the "two-state solution." After all, this is also the solution Pope Benedict pleaded for during his recent stay in Jordan and Israel. But the Canard Enchaîné – which offers every week a short but informed chronicle of foreign affairs – speaks of a very pro-Netanyahu attitude inside the European Union. This a completely new situation: for decades, Europeans have been trying to keep the balance between Israel’s claims and the Palestinians’ aspiration to having their own state. The European attitude was very often cowardly, and many opportunities to play an active role in the region were missed. But it was far less cowardly thantoday’s refusal to seize the meager opportunities that still exist to build a peaceful future between Israel and its neighbors. Our political leaders do not seem to see the danger of their ambiguous attitude. Officially, they are speaking in favor of a diplomatic solution regarding Iran’s nuclear policy. But by encouraging the current Israeli government against Barack Obama, they seem to support the possibility of Israel acting militarily against Iran.

Another illustration of the ideological radicalization at the periphery of a crumbling empire is Poland’s wish that a Patriot missile unit be stationed on its territory, even if Obama decides not to proceed with the anti-missile shield in Eastern Europe his predecessor had proposed. An announcement was made on May 20 by the Polish government that Warsaw wants to go on with the deployment according to the planned schedule. The Polish deputy defense minister evoked the completion of final agreements in July of this year. Maybe Obama’s pledge a few weeks ago to review the missile-shield program in order to improve Washington’s relations with Moscow was only a tactical move. But the worsening of the United States’ financial situation and the structural weakening of the dollar are such that Obama cannot afford opening a major new geopolitical crisis front without shaking American democracy more deeply than George W. Bush did. The Poles who helped to free Eastern Europe from Communism are now pleading for the exact opposite of their 25-year-old fight for freedom! This is very sad when you remember what Walesa, Geremek, Michnik, and Pope John Paul II meant to a whole generation of Europeans.

But there could be good news too. Let us have a look at a European country that is also part of the core of the empire: Britain. The Financial Times offers a full-page analysis on the necessary revision of UK defense policy. The catastrophic state of British public finances means that London could be forced to reduce considerably its defense budget. "Should it [Britain] continue to ‘punch above its weight’ and assert itself militarily around the globe – or, as it battles through the most serious economic crisis for half a century, is it time for Britain to retreat from the world stage, pledging to defend its own territory and that of its NATO allies but offering to do no more?" asks the Financial Times, summing up the current debate in London governmental circles. These are exactly the terms that were uttered in Moscow in private conversations among Soviet leaders at the beginning of the 1980s, when the cost of their empire and, more generally, the economic failure of the Soviet model had become obvious (see, for instance, Richard Rhodes’ thrilling picture of these years in Moscow and Washington in Arsenals of Folly. The Making of the Nuclear Arms Race). Britain could be, paradoxically, the key to the launching of an American perestroika. The country has been the most faithful defender of American interests among European countries; the key role of its financial sector has been preventing until recently any serious challenge to the dollar standard (had Britain entered the euro zone at the end of the 1990s, the collapse of the dollar standard would have come much earlier). Today, Britain could be the country to bring realism back to Europe.

I do not want to be too optimistic on this last point. The geopolitical crisis, which is an inevitable consequence of the new Great Depression that began in August 2007, will certainly be marked by hard internal struggles inside the "global oligarchy" and terrible international conflicts, civil wars, or even genocides in some parts of the world . But this is precisely the reason why we should be satisfied that London has just discovered what we could call ironically "the virtues of Gorbachevism."

Author: Edouard Husson

Edouard Husson is a specialist in 20th-century German and European history at the Sorbonne.